Outside The Independent on Tuesday, November 7, where Genesis Owusu is about to play, a young woman asks the guy checking tickets at the door what the music is like. He hesitates, trying to find the right words, and turns to me while I’m trying to pull my ID out of my bag. Now I’m struggling and offer generalities like punk and funk. “Kind of like Yves Tumor” the ticket guy offers. “Sure, like Bloc Party,” I say back. I don’t mention that a few hours before, I had spoken to Owusu, who just wrapped up the North American leg of his tour for the album Struggler, and had told him that as someone who writes about music, I also find it hard to describe his undefinable sound.
“When I started getting into music as a whole creative medium, it was almost kind of like every time I opened my mouth, a different sound would come out,” Owusu said by way of explanation. “I think that probably just stemmed from being around a lot of different sounds growing up. I don't really know how to explain it. Sorry to all the journalists that I give a hard time for making them explain it.”
From the start, when he began releasing music, Owusu was frustrated by the attempts to find a box to put him into, and so he made his first album, Smiling with No Teeth, as a huge statement piece to further confuse those who sought to pigeonhole him. “Maybe I am like the funk guy, but I can also be the rap guy and the electronic guy and the punk guy. And like the guy that makes folk songs about fishing. It's like, I am this and that and everything else. So if you want to box me, try your best,” he said of his attitude while making the first album.
For Struggler, which, if you were trying to describe it, has the angsty synths of The Killers, the funky guitar grooves of Prince, a touch of the cheeky punk of the Ramones, and the danceability of Chromeo, he wanted to narrow down to a singular focus. “It was never really about genre for me in the first place,” he said. “I wanted to express a certain thing and this sound was like I'm painting the sun, and this sound is the color red, and this sound is the color orange, and it's all just about painting the picture as a whole, not so much about flexing how many genres that you can do.”
The picture, as it turns out, is a biblical-themed opus centered around the indestructibility of cockroaches. His mother was the leader of a church’s gospel choir, and though he’s no longer religious himself, he was drawn to the religious parables and symbols and used them to put together a story “about a roach that runs and runs and runs trying not to get stepped on by God. And in the story, we as humans are all the roach and the God character is just this crazy and absurd world that's around us.”
Born Kofi Owusu-Ansah, Owusu considers himself a storyteller first, and music is just one of the mediums that allows him to do so. He was born in Ghana and his family moved to Australia, where he got a degree in journalism. His music career began because he wrote short stories and poetry, and that led to making rap music because it seemed like the easiest way to get people to listen to his poems. “I don't think music or live performance will be the last iteration either. You know, I feel like I'll probably end up sculpting or making furniture or something like that, just the next iteration to tell the next story.”
In the meantime, he continues his run as the roach, cutting a biblical figure at his live show as he weaves into the crowd with a big red book in hand while phone lights cast a halo glow. “It all feeds into the narrative and eventually it becomes a communal experience where it's not like me versus the crowd,” he says of his show. “We all become roaches together and yeah, it's very cute.” And it was.